Last week, the physicists said they found the Higgs boson, which they've been trying to find for a long time. They took a lot of data, applied statistics, and pulled a little bump out of the noise. There's more to come, though.
I saw a lot of whooping and hollering last week, just like people understood what had happened and why the Higgs is important. It's apparently the last particle/field that needed to be found for the Standard Model, the physicists' current model of how matter is constituted, to be confirmed.
I don't understand the Standard Model, and I haven't paid a lot of attention to such things since i was in college and decided that chemistry, working with things I could touch, would be much more fun than physics, which was an earlier enthusiasm. I didn't want to do something that was all mathematics. Part of it was, too, that physics didn't seem to me to have the answers about ultimate reality that it claimed to.
Stephen Weinberg explains the significance of the Higgs boson, the first explanation I've found that makes any sense at all to me. But questions remain:
But much remains to be done to pin this down. The electroweak theory of 1967–1968 predicted all of the properties of the Higgs particle, except its mass. With the mass now known experimentally, we can calculate the probabilities for all the various ways that Higgs particles can decay, and see if these predictions are borne out by further experiment. This will take a while.
The discovery of a new particle that appears to be the Higgs also leaves theorists with a difficult task: to understand its mass. The Higgs is the one elementary particle whose mass does not arise from the breakdown of the electroweak symmetry. As far as the underlying principles of the electroweak theory are concerned, the Higgs mass could have any value. That is why neither Salam nor I could predict it.
In fact, there is something puzzling about the Higgs mass we now do observe. It is generally known as the “hierarchy problem.” Since it is the Higgs mass that sets the scale for the masses of all other known elementary particles, one might guess that it should be similar to another mass that plays a fundamental role in physics, the so-called Planck mass, which is the fundamental unit of mass in the theory of gravitation. (It is the mass of hypothetical particles whose gravitational attraction for one another would be as strong as the electric force between two electrons separated by the same distance.) But the Planck mass is about a hundred thousand trillion times larger than the Higgs mass. So, although the Higgs particle is so heavy that a giant particle collider was needed to create it, we still have to ask, why is the Higgs mass so small?